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Ignore the PSG row, Qatar already has exactly what it wanted from Lionel Messi

More usually associated with trophies than troublemaking and records than reprimands, Lionel Messi this week finds himself in the headlines after being suspended by his club.

Paris Saint-Germain rejected the Argentinian forward’s request to travel to Saudi Arabia to fulfil contractual demands as part of his tourism ambassador role, but off he went anyway. A two-week enforced absence is the outcome, leaving PSG’s No30 set to miss out on back-to-back fixtures against relegation-threatened sides, during which time the Parisiens will move to within touching distance of yet another Ligue 1 title.

In the face of yet more Champions League failure, and the fact this has hardly been a vintage domestic campaign either - PSG have lost six times and are only five points clear of Marseille - it represents a sour footnote to an entirely underwhelming time in France for the greatest player of a generation.

What comes next is inevitably going to be a parting of the ways, a disgruntled lack of satisfaction on both sides, with Messi out of contract and offers on the table even as he turns 36 years of age this summer.

But while Messi’s legacy would never have been in danger anyway - and is now utterly untouchable in football history terms after winning the World Cup in Qatar in December - there is very much a case for him to answer, or at least an opportunity to do so, over how far his contribution extends past the pitch.

The two more-travelled footballing routes open to Messi appear to be, at present, the least likely ones for him to take up.

There’s the romantic line, even the redemption arc of sorts, if he remains not just in Europe but goes ‘home’: back to FC Barcelona, a free transfer to the club he departed in tears amid their financial woes of two summers ago. Their ongoing predicament means it’s not entirely certain it can happen, let alone will, even though both sides have made noises about the emotional aspect. Otherwise, links to MLS have not subsided, with Inter Miami seeming to offer a route to wind down his career at a still-competitive and relevant level and location. David Beckham’s franchise would make space and offer an equity stake as well as a place in the team, though as the Independent reported, Messi would be keen on another crack at Uefa’s biggest club trophy first.

But that comes against what L’Equipe are calling “the biggest offer ever proposed to a football player,” with an unnamed Saudi Arabian club preparing the monster deal to see Messi play out his final years in the Gulf states.

Other reports claim Al Hilal will be that side, pitting Messi once more against his long-term rival across LaLiga and the Champions League, Cristiano Ronaldo, who is now with Al Nassr.

 (AFP via Getty Images)
(AFP via Getty Images)

That would strengthen Messi’s ties with the Gulf state and is undoubtedly what the nation’s long-term play was aimed at when bringing him on board as an ambassador. But whether he wants to acknowledge it or not, Messi has to face up to the fact that a move there would not be seen by the rest of the world as being about feeding gazelles and luxurious shopping. It would be seen as him endorsing a State with serious human rights abuses, and this time on a professional level.

Messi is not as vocal, public or direct with his views on social matters as some of his colleagues and peers tend to be these days. Doubtless there are tremendous causes contributed to, but those on which he - or any individual with as large a platform - is silent can also lead to suspicion of association.

Having a sponsorship is not seen by all as being on an equal footing with the day job. There remains a level of separation.

Moving to the Saudi Pro League removes that layer and instead suggests endorsement.

Therein ultimately lies another layer in the tangled web of his present, never mind his future: the Qatari owners of PSG were all too happy to see Messi lift the World Cup in Doha, reinforcing the image the nation is tied to his success and he to their advances, yet the geopolitical complexities of him being contractually obliged to appear in and promote Saudi Arabia - who themselves as a nation enjoyed one of the biggest moments in the spotlight in Qatar, against Messi - are rather less palatable.

 (EPA)
(EPA)

PSG’s stance over the unsanctioned trip is a valid one, in business terms. The club insist it’s down to sporting terms only, too. But it’s a short-term amount of control they have left, and all but guarantees a summer split. That untangles one of the strands surrounding Messi’s next move, but his path is no more clearer.

Qatar got what they wanted from Messi, albeit through country rather than club. Saudi Arabia have not yet lured him to the fullest extent of his powers and influence. But if he opts to end his career that way, playing directly in rather than merely for such a state, it would represent another underwhelming - almost irrelevant, in fact - footnote to one of the game’s most glittering and storied careers.